“Don’t let school interfere with your education…”
Grading is that part of a teacher’s life that should bring some kind of solace to our work. No doubt, it is an arduous chore most of the time for the sheer amount of time it takes to do it well, do it fairly, and to do it in a way that actually helps the student. I am the first to admit, that I rarely feel satisfied after a long round of assessment because I often wonder if I am a reptilian calculator or a warm-blooded human on a mission to inspire, cajole and enlighten a willing and eager student. We teachers (myself included) have to juggle the competing demands of reality with an objective mission to further a subjective aim—that of coaxing the best out of a myriad of living, thinking, feeling students who bring a mosaic of life onto the platter (and splatter) of our curriculums. Amidst the competing demands of a common day, doing what is best for them seldom coincides with what is best for me .
It really feels like (after thirty years of teaching) that I should have mastered the tools of the grading toolbox, but I certainly feel now that I have much to learn and do and practice to head off to my retirement—still some years away—with some sense of satisfaction that I am a “master of my trade.” I am cursed by my burdens of reflection that I am missing out on the path to enlightenment, for I am constantly doing what others do simply because it is what is being done or has been done for generations before me. I wonder if I actually have the strength or wisdom in me to rally academia towards a wiser and more just solution.
How much of a grade should be based on homework? Most of us have no clue what “home” is to most of our students, yet we continually assign homework that is graded like daily take-home tests. It adds several more hours of pressure to what is already an over-burdened day. Homework should never be a test, which usually only rewards the gifted—whether that gift is one of intellect, the gift of a stable and nurturing home free from distraction or the gift of financial resources to tutor, guide and direct a student through his or her paces outside of school.Teachers should teach in class and not expect a student to learn what has not yet been taught.
Parents and administrators have become masters at manipulating expectations and as teachers we are only the limbs and heads of some monstrous and manipulated marionette. For the good of our students and our school systems, teachers are tasked to do the bidding of forces we barely even know or recognize. Common core is never really “common” for it suggests there is actually a common student on whom to model these expectations. In our private schools (free from the constraints of common core) we have the equally insidious monster that expects those extra dollars and extra attention to bring a student further up the ladder and poise him or her well and squarely on the next higher rung towards admittance to an even more prestigious school. In both cases, we are removing the wing from the bird and asking it to fly.
If anything should be common, it should be common-sense. Parents deserve to know what their children are studying, and why. Administrators deserve to know how well a teacher is teaching what they have been hired to teach. Teachers need to teach what they know best, and if they don’t know it, to learn it well or beg to be excused—but don’t fake it, and don’t let myopic, budget-constrained business sense overrule common sense and make a fisherman rule over a farm.
I consider myself to be fairly well-rounded and open-minded enough (arguably, I am sure) but it seems like every professional day takes me further away from core of my passion. I am being asked to teach grit and resilience; I am being asked to develop the moral character of my students; I am being asked to instill honesty, empathy, respect and courage; I am being asked to eliminate prejudice and bigotry; in short, it seems like I am being tasked with shaping the form of a perfect society out of the hard-scrabbled flesh and bones of imperfect youth. Noble, maybe, but I would rather show all this rather than demand it. I bow and bend to these winds of pedagogical changes like a dory anchored outside of the harbor, but I don’t really go anywhere. Should I grade a kid on grit? Is there a way to assess courage or define lack of prejudice? Have schools become the arbiter of social change, policies and correctness? Will it be codified and ruined to the point where it can, should and must be graded? If so, there is money to made somewhere by some professional presenter to tell us how to do it–and soon it will edge and creep into another form of another demand in the life of a teacher.
And I will have to sit through it…
Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World
Create a Better Classroom
for You & Your Students
Teaching Traditional & Modern Skills
for Reading, Writing, Creating & Sharing in a Digital World
Creating video essays out of traditionally constructed essays bring a whole new dynamic and range of possibilities for every student. A hard wrought and well-crafted essay is no longer a static piece of paper tucked away in a teacher’s desk or stashed in a crowded hallway locker. It is a multi-dimensional project that is shared with the world. Check out some of these that were created by my eighth and ninth grade classes.
It’s Over: A Final Reflection
~Paul, Eighth Grade
A Trip with Thoreau
~Charlie, 9th Grade
A New Way of Creating Rubrics
No longer will the term “rubric” create dread in your students. The Crafted Word Rubrics are not checklists; they are guides to help students respond to almost any assignment in a clear and confident way.
Try them out!
Few of us can do well if we don’t feel confident in what we are doing, but neither can that confidence be a misplaced confidence that is more succinctly called arrogance–a presumption of skill rather than an actual skill. Every time I create a teaching unit or plan a lesson–or even when I sit down to write something like this–I have to ask myself: “Do I really know what I am teaching, and am I teaching what I know in a way that all of my students are learning what I presume I am teaching?” I have to keep asking myself if I am the sage on the stage or the guide on the side; I have to keep asking if I am teaching essential skills and content or am I teaching what some reading workbook or English composition textbook says I should teach. Thankfully, at heart, I am still the shop teacher I have been for almost twenty years, but I am also the writer and teacher of writing I have been for more years than that.
Teaching shop is pretty cool because every kid comes into the shop with an untamed enthusiasm and eagerness to build something that is already in his or her head, and they are remarkably unfazed by their limited woodworking skills or by the scope of their dreams. I remember well an old student of mine who came into seventh-grade shop some years ago with detailed plans for building a one-man submersible submarine (as if you could build a non-submersible submarine:) and he begged me to give him a chance to try and build his design. Somehow he settled for something like a knapkin holder, but I heard the other day that he is now in Navy Seal training, so his ultimate dream never died; however, he learned that dreams can be realized and built out of a series of steps, an accumulation of skills forged out of the iron of real life and a dogged clinging to a vision of what he ultimately wanted to build.
Young writers (all writers) need that dream and vision, too. They need to love the possibilities that writing offers to build something as awesome and real as a six-board chest or a sparrow whittled out of a piece white pine. They need to go to the empty page with the same sense of possibility as the kid walking into the woodshop, and they need to want to learn the skills that will get them to a place they want to be as craftsmen and craftswomen of words and sentences and paragraphs and stories. Most importantly, they need a place and a way to learn and practice those skills: a workshop of their own to walk into and dream and learn and create.
The Woodshop as a Metaphor
THOUGHT: The woodshop is a metaphor for what should be possible in the classroom
- “Ah, the shop!” It smells good!
- They can move:
- They get to use cool tools
- They learn to “cut the board all the way through.”
- They need help–hence collaboration is natural and reciprocal.
- Their hands work as much as their heads.
- They own what they are building–and it has a purpose and a destiny.
- They get the teachers undivided attention–at least some of the time.
- The teacher leaves them alone–most of the time.
- Mistakes are fixed, not criticized.
- They “never” worry about their shop grade.
- They are surrounded by the future possibilities of shop class.
- They can see that building their toolbox is just a first step towards something like a boat, a chair, a bed, a table, a sculpture, etc: [We can do this in the classroom by having publishing parties, sharing digital portfolios, blogging—anything that allows students to see where their education is going.]
- There is a completion of a cycle: Though my students usually have smaller whittling projects going on the side, there is always one “big” project that takes them the entire term to complete, and it is always a source of pride.
- What you build stays with you for your life, if you wish.
How Is Your Classroom Experienced?
Your classroom should reflect your students needs, not your comfort zone–and definitely not a pedagogy which is not your own.
- A class is a physical place but also a metaphysical place:
- We can alter both the physical and the psychical to create a better classroom.
- What does your classroom look like?
- Is it yours? Or are you part of the shared classroom model?
- Does it reflect that part of you that you want to reflect.
- What does your classroom feel like?
- Where do you sit, stand, or move when teaching? (There really is not a right way if it keeps the students engaged, interested, and ready).
- Is there any cool factor?
- Is your class any different than the classroom next door? Should it be?
- What is the temperature of the emotional warmth?
At your next faculty meeting have the faculty sit in rows of desks. Raise hands only if you know the answer.
- Only 30% can respond
- No talking allowed when leaving the room.
- The results of the problem are never published.
Have another faculty meeting where a common school problem or issue is presented and ask if small groups could possibly come up with some solutions. Have this group meet in a room with comfortable chairs or couches, and some refreshments. Let this group present their solutions to the rest of the faculty.
Respond To the Primal Needs of Your Students
How do you respond to and prepare for the real and most primal and essential needs of your students?
- They need you to be genuine: if you can’t then you shouldn’t teach.
- Notice them. As much for the good as the bad. Class Dojo maybe?
- Say hello when they show up for class. Students need affirmation that they are welcome in your classroom.
- Give feedback–verbal, visual, & written. They need affirmation that their efforts on your behalf will never go unnoticed and unappreciated.
- Show students you care about more than how they are doing in your class. This is where the power of blogging is unparalleled. In the shop, the very nature of the mentoring makes kids feel connected because the shop teacher really is helping “them.”
- Say goodbye when your students leave: make some sort of tradition surrounding the end of class. Your students last impression is a huge one, so make your goodbye a good and affirming ritual.
- Have special days, reward days, random acts of “let’s do something different days.
What Does an Engaged Student Look Like?
What does an engaged student look, act and feel like?
- What is Engagement and what does it took like?
- How do we create an engaging classroom?
- How do we nurture and sustain engaged students?
- How do we assess engagement?
- Create Rubrics, Folio’s, Videos, and blogging communities.
- You know it when you see it.
- An engaged student is willing and happy to figure it out.
- An engaged student feels like he or she has accomplished something worthwhile.
- An engaged student appreciates the value and or necessity of the content.
- An engaged student is alert, involved, and curious.
- An engaged student “can’t believe shop is over.”
- An engaged student will actually talk about what they did in class while driving home–and they might even bring it up on their own.
- An engaged feels like his or her time in your class is time well spent!
What Does a Disengaged Student Look Like?
It seems like there are a few switches that engage students, but a lot more that turn them off and disengage and disaffect, so focus on what turns them on–and keeps them on!
- They can’t move.
- Everything is boring.
- The content and delivery is predictable.
- They can only use a pencil and paper.
- They work on their own—even when struggling with the basic concepts.
- Their heads are exhausted.
- Their bodies are exhausted.
- They’re hungry.
- They don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.
- They only get help when they raise their hands.
- There is nothing palpable to show when class is done.
- They don’t know what they just learned?
- They don’t know how they did it?
- There is no endgame.
- The teacher hates them.
….And, yes, the list can go on as long as there is strength in the body.
Limits, Rules, Expectations & Values
Kids spend a huge portion of their childhood in your classroom. What “family values” can and/or should carry over to your classroom?
- Set Rules, Limits, Expectations with the same passion and resolve as you would with your family.
- Let them in!
- Set rules, standards & expectations.
- Create traditions.
- Do fun things together.
- Laugh a lot and tell stories.
- Point out right and wrong. The moral compass!
- Forgive and Move on.
- Treat everyone equally. Get rid of tracking unless absolutely essential! It is a caste system by any other name.
- Treat each student uniquely: know your kids, accept them for who they are. This is quite different than being a “friend” to your students.
I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government
from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.
We need to give our students projects and possibilities that they create, own, oversee, and present. We should not try to own what they create.
- There should always be a project going on.
- Projects should include collaborative and individual work.
- There should always be some sort of self-assessment.
- Students need to be able to claim genuine ownership, be free to pursue new directions and ideas, and exercise responsible and mature judgement when developing and creating that project.
- There needs to be an endgame of sorts–some way to showcase and curate that work for future generations to share.
The Power of Portfolios
We need to create portfolios that capture and collate a history of every student’s journey through school.
- Collect. Collate. Curate: A new mantra for change!
- Our profession is only possible because of those who collected, collated and curated our bodies of literature, art, philosophy, history, and culture.
- Metacognition: It is important to remember, reflect and respond as a way of understanding who and how we are as learners (and teachers).
- Use journaling as a way to enable and practice metacognition.
- There are practical and affordable(as in free) ways to start doing this today!
- There is no downside. You are just being lazy if you don’t! (sorry)
The Perils, Pitfalls & Promises of Technology
We need to start bridging the digital divides that are separating teachers and department and find fertile ground (not common ground) to allow our collective and individual digital fluency to evolve in a dynamic and energizing way.
- Are technology decisions being made for the right reasons?
- Are there a few people making the decisions for all of you?
- Do you want it that way?
- What is holding you back from using more–not less–technology?
- Does technology engage or simply distract?
- Does it simplify or complify (I need this word to exist)?
- Keep the focus on focus!
- Does technology make you grumpy?
- Do you, as a teacher, fully grasp the implications, limitations, and possibilities of technology?
- Is being engaged with and connected with a broader, diverse world important to a child’s education—to you?
- Managing classes and curriculum: Using an LMS such as Schoology, Edmodo, Haiku, Canvas, Moodle, Lore, etc., allows for easy access and sharing of assignments, grades, student and parent communication and a relative transparency of process.
- Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted: [See “What doesn’t work” ]
- Extending the classroom: online discussions, portfolio sharing, flipped classrooms…
- Increasing collaborative opportunities.
- Leveling the playing field.
- Rethinking pedagogy.
- Teaches how to manage a digital footprint
What doesn’t work…
- That which attracts, distracts–and vice versa–that which distracts, attracts…
- Complicates the classroom experience: too many logons, computers don’t always work, not enough access at home, hard to find work.
- Allows parents to “see” children’s grades as they are posted.
- Introduces a world the kids may not be ready for emotionally
- The learning is too distant from the classroom: kids don’t bond with each other in the same way.
How To Help Teachers
How do you help teachers who are struggling to engage their students? How do you help teachers let go and grow and love and cope and change?
- As a teacher, you are the root of the problem or the source of inspiration. [No one wants to admit that they are not able to do well what they’ve been hired to do, nor do schools, private schools in particular, like to air their dirty laundry, and so change is made behind closed doors; administrators give advice, make demands, and press the issue and the teachers being questioned are fearful of losing their jobs, bitter at being unfairly targeted, and often still unable to change.
- Metacognition: Encourage teachers to “self reflect.” Explore and possibly embrace initiatives such as The Folio Project. [It has to start with how can we best adapt, change, evolve–whatever–in ways that make us better, more engaging, more joyful, and more effective teachers.]
- What can schools do to help teachers be more engaged and engaging?
- Set high, yet realistic, standards that encourage and enable teachers to feel empowered and energized by their career choice.
- Let teachers make the best use of their time.
- Get rid of content driven faculty meetings and focus on process driven meetings that invite participation, reflection, and renewal—stuff that might possibly energize, enlighten and transform—not simply educate and inform.
- Do all meetings have to be synchronous?
- Do all meetings need to be mediated by the same few people with responses generated by the same few teachers?
- USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY: Use discussion threads and require teachers to respond within a given time frame.
- Post power points and/or presentations online with a comment thread instead of making teachers sit through them.
- Take steps to lessens the work and time that keeps teachers from the core expectations of their jobs. Many schools still operate under the assumption that our parents only hear from us once or twice a semester, and so schools place great value on formal communications: conferences; mid-term comments; end of semester letters, etc, all without any built in time to accomplish these tasks in the course of their school days.
- Meet less or meet more, but never meet just to touch base unless it is a truly mutual meeting.
- Consider allocating days to parent meetings (a lot of schools already do this).
- Have a comment writing and proofreading professional day. If you give teachers the time—even if they do not use that time when it is given.
- Use an LMS/CMS that is open, interactive, and dynamic and which gives teachers room to evolve in their teaching practices and maintain communication with students, advisors, and parents.
Are You Ready?
Writing an essay for me is relatively simple. I choose what I want to write about, and I start writing. There is not a soul in the world who is expecting anything out of this essay—or even know it is being created, which will be great if it dies an early and ignominious death. I don’t have a teacher pushing me in any one direction–like I am pushing you. The writing prompt and the inspiration is already in me; but, though I try to write well, there are no real-life repercussions when I don’t write well. My audience for this (which is you—my upper school English class) is remarkably small and polite, and as much as I’d like to think that you are captivated by my writing, I know that in reality you are a “captive” to my writing, because, as my students, you are a prisoner in my classroom. You are somewhat doomed to read what I write, but your actual freedom to write is hobbled by a teacher who is intent on extracting (by what must sometimes feel like any means possible) what you know and think about a narrow range of literature–in this case, the first chapter of Walden: the essay called “Economy.” Throw into the mix your other classes and what do you get: a few more books, an era or two of some history; some idea of why leaves turn red; a handy way discerning volume from the breadth and width of a fruit–a smattering of Spanish words or Latin roots: a bookshelf from shop and an abstract oil painting for your wall. Don’t forget your soccer and football teams, the school play, band, and student life, and now your day is completely filled.
But is it full?
It is certainly filled with an exhausting range of activities designed and structured to educate, enlighten, inform, and inspire. Your teachers are a diverse mix of people who really do give a damn about you and who spend more time than you might ever imagine trying to create and perpetuate this living and breathing machine called school, but, as Thoreau writes, “we[teachers and students] labor under a mistake.” We fill the day, but we rarely fulfill the possibilities of each day, and we never will until we remove the blinders that keep us on the beaten path. Frightening as it sounds, the lunatics must run the asylum: students must be allowed to take the reins and become learners and explorers, while teachers and administrators must adapt or die. “New ways for the new; old ways for the old.” (HDT) The world really is a different place now. The “noosphere” or “omega point” predicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin almost a hundred years ago is becoming a reality. People can be–and are–connected in ways unimaginable to the visionaries and teachers who broke the backs of tradition to create the schools we have today. But times have changed. The desk is more a ball and chain of myopic restraint, while our opportunities for true learning–for all of us–have never been greater.
Something has to give. Society and its schools have become as much slaves to assessment as we are creators of destiny. Measuring someone by “the content of their character” seldom makes it onto report cards. Instead, we measure your progress and achievements with a reptilian calculation of the merits and deficiencies of your responses to specific inquiries and lessons we are convinced we have taught well. We critique what and how you write, but rarely consider why you write. Though we seem compassionate and practice empathy, we still erect a barrier that only a few of you can get over unscathed–and those are the celebrated few: the smart, hard-working, and diligent students who somehow manage to do it all. Everyone else plays catch me if you can, and so this paradigm is set in motion, and it becomes the foundation of almost every school and university in the world. The gifted student becomes a recognizable icon, sculpted, shaped, and polished by the whims of academia. As parents we stumble over each other trying to weave our child’s place on the honor roll or his or her SAT scores–or even the average score of the whole town in comparison to every other school in the district–into the most casual of conversations. On the flip side of this coin, these honors are hardly as respected by peers and classmates (perhaps because they sense the inherent fraud and advantage to the system) and past prowess as a student soon makes for unsavory and indelicate talk even just mere hours after graduation.
Maybe doing well in school is not such an impressive accomplishment. It is pretty cool that we have a black president raised by a single mom–and we use this as praise for what educational opportunities can do; but history is full of great individuals who rose from humble beginnings. It is a recurring theme of humanity itself. It is part and parcel of what Joseph Campbell has termed “The Heroic Cycle.” Schools do not create greatness; our primal need to be great is what creates greatness. No one reading this is precluded from realizing his or her individual greatness. We don’t have to be Telemachus facing up to the rowdy suitors in his house, but all of us have challenges that are unmet and untested, and we must meet them and we must test them if we want to be a hero. There is courage and strength of each of us, but not as much motivation, perhaps because the tools we use in school are not the best motivators. We instill as much fear as desire, and there is a subtle paralysis that takes hold. Only if the doors open wider and the walls fall down will we see the expanse of our opportunities–and only if you give enough of a damn to reach for the dream at hand, and then only if you see the dream. Realizing your dream should be your accomplishment, and layering dream upon dream should be your life.
Life has a way of doling out hardship in unequal proportions, but school should not be one of them. There is certainly very little that is fair about who goes to what school, but that is the unspoken inequity. We praise the notion of an egalitarian educational system, but we shudder at the thought of implementation. Few of my Concord friends would ship their sons and daughters to our schools in Maynard because…well, just because. Ironically, few of my Maynard friends would feel comfortable with their sons and daughters trying to mingle in a Concord milieu. And so we keep up a pleasant caste system that feeds off the tension between the rich and the poor. It’s like the old camp song: “Don’t chuck your muck in my backyard/my backyard’s full,” but because of the internet, our backyards have merged; the demarcation line is blurred, and there really is a chance for every kid to play on the same field–if we let them. Caesar accidentally burned down the Royal Library at Alexandria; we shouldn’t do the same with our new library of knowledge. During the first solo circumnavigation of the world, the Afrikaners in South Africa scoffed at Joshua Slocum’s claims that the world was round, even as he was ninety percent of the way around the globe! Wouldn’t it be ironic if our schools lost the race for knowledge because we dithered at the starting gate?
I certainly did not start this narrative with any plans to take on our educational system. Sharper minds than mine could tear this essay apart, but only because they have had so many generations to practice. The hurricane yesterday gave me a rare gift of time today, so I was just hoping to give you a few words to help you get started on your Walden essay. Words have that effect on me. Maybe my own rereading of Walden made me listen more closely to the drumbeat of my heart no matter how measured or far away; maybe in these political times of gloating, bitching, and belittling I didn’t want to be one of the thousand hacking at the branches of evil; I wanted to be the one striking at the root. The beauty and bane of Thoreau’s words is how easily they can prove either side of an argument, and my mind is so scattered that I could never get around to organizing all the facts; instead, I’ve simply scattered some seeds among the compost of my experience. Hopefully, one or two will be like the mustard seeds in that parable of Jesus. If not, I’ll have to till again and plant more thoughtfully.
All I know is what I sense: change is coming, and if you have your wits about you, you will be riding the edge of that wave.
Do You Really Want to Be a Teacher?
Let Kids Write
There are plenty of smarter, more gifted, and more interesting writers out there than me or you–but there shouldn’t be a more passionate writer. For better or worse, your blog is you–as my blog is me, and until you want a better you and I want a better me, readers will find another place to go.
Few things in life are more important than having a passion for something. It is an offshoot of “give damn.” To have a life without a focus on some something or somethings to do and explore and develop on your own is a pretty pitiful life. When I was your age, I had a rock collection that filled a bazillion egg crates with chippings and scrapings I hammered off ; I had snake and reptile aquariums that had specimens of most any cold-blooded creature in the White Pond area of Concord. I had a shortwave radio that I made with my father–and a huge antenna on the roof to help pick up conversations happening anywhere in the world. I had a collection of fishing poles and rods and reels and lures and baits to somehow tease trout, bass, horned pout, kibbers, pickerel and anything else out of the Concord River, Walden Pond, the Assabet, Nashoba Brook and Warner’s Pond. Best of all my family had a plywood sailfish sailboat my father built in our garage from plans he got in somehow to magazine, and in that 12 feet of arc, I got my first taste of sailing–a taste that is as strong today as it was back then. My bedroom was a mess of magazine both strewn and piled–but always read: Boy’s Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Field and Stream, Sears Roebuck, National Geographics and any other magazine, book, or journal that fed my passions. Most of those publications are still around to buy in some way today, but there is an even larger world of bloggers out there who cover everything those magazines covered–and a whole lot more. These blogs and websites are where people go to feed their passions and develop their own knowledge and skills. It is where you go and where I go, and the better the blog or the better the site, the more often we return, and the more we return–the more of a mark that writer has left on the world. And that mark says something about that person. You. Something good, I hope.
In ancient Rome there was a saying: “De gustabus non disputantum,”otherwise known as “There is no accounting for taste,” which is a good thing because it keeps the world to this day interesting, diverse, and dynamic. We don’t have to like what other people like, nor are there any compelling reasons why we should–but we should like something; we should want to be knowledgeable about something, and be good at something, and to constantly be getting better at something. Think of your passions, and think of what you can do to live out that passion or passions and share it with the world. Think of what you are going to leave behind as your footprints in this life. You do not want to be like the drunk sailor Elpenor who fell off the roof and died a death that no one remembers or cares about. As Odysseus himself said: “No songs will be sung about him.” Your “digital footprint” is the song that is sung about you.
When I first started blogging with my classes–now close to ten years ago–most people were paranoid about kids names being “on the internet,” and so we built firewall on firewall behind private servers to keep you safe and removed from the real internet. In most ways it has been great. It gives you guys a safe place to practice living and sharing in the digital world without the dangers of anyone knowing you are out there. But times have changed. Soon you are going to want your name be out there–and out there in a good and positive way. You are not going to want someone to google your name and come up with…nothing. I am really proud to have discovered that it is relatively hard to study haiku and not come across my website at some point in your studies. I like that if someone googles my name they get the best of me and not the worst of me. I want that for you, too.
If you’ve got a passion, then keep learning and practicing and experimenting, and then share it with the world. If the seed dies with the flower, there is no beauty left behind.
I stood in a long line waiting with Pipo for his first ever ride on a roller coaster. Things that move in strange ways are a big deal to him. When he first came to live with us, he was eight years old and had never even been in a two story house. On his second day here, we took him to Floating Hospital in Boston and strode into the elevator with an insouciance, which, in retrospect, reflected an utter lack of cultural awareness for a young boy in a strange land. The door shut, the elevator moved, and Pipo screamed and clutched me in his fear. Now, eighteeen months later, he stood wringing his hands, intermittently laughing and grimacing at the thought of the “The Yankee Cannonball.”
“Will it be scary?”
“Will I scream?”
“Will I throw up?”
“I don’t know. I might.”
“You better not!”
“We really don’t have to go.”
“Yeah, we do.”
I could see his head racing a hundred miles an hour. I distracted him by yelling at some high school kids who were swearing at each other. “Don’t do that.”
“Why? They shouldn’t be swearing.”
“What if they beat you up?”
“I’ll hide behind you.”
“Mama will beat them up if they beat you up.”
“She better. Comb your hair up so you’re forty eight inches tall.”
Leaning on his toes he was just the right height. Squeezing into the car the single safety bar held me in a crushing gut squeeze while leaving Pipo astonishingly free to squiggle and squirm. “Do people ever fall out?”
“What does ‘rarely’ mean?”
“It means that only kids who ask a million questions fall out.”
The cars slid toward the first hill and were grabbed by the chain. He held the hand grip, smiled, and raised his eyebrows in mock fear. “There’s the bus! I wish I was on the bus. I like the bus.”
“I like the bus, too.”
The first hill caught us both by surprise. “Oh, man.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. Pipo squinted his eyes and held the bar in front of him. I think he held his breath for ninety seconds. The girl behind us used every form of the F-word ever created. “Was it fun?”
“Want to go again?”
“No. Never again.”
We found the rest of the family in the water park. Dripping and shivering, they all ran up to Pipo and asked if he really went on the Yankee Cannonball. “Yup, but never again. No way, Jose’. Who wants to go on the bumper cars?” Denise looked at me like I was a bad father forcing his son to be a man. “He wanted to go.”
“Yeah, right. Was he even tall enough?”
“With a micron to spare. It was another one of those things he just had to do.”
Denise and I both understand that part of Pipo. When he decides to do something, he’ll do it, no matter how much angst it causes him—or us. He is not so much interested in overcoming fear as he is in facing his fears. He embraces fear as an experience and not merely as an emotion. It is a lesson in courage from which we can all draw inspiration.
The Yankee Cannonball is also a perfect metaphor for the written word. The empty page looms in front of us like the rickety roller coaster. We can’t call ourselves writers if we refuse to get in the car and go. We can’t call ourselves writers if we don’t tell the whole story, replete with every dip and turn of our inner and outer experience. We can’t give in to the temptation to leap from the car at the first sign of fear, and we can’t tell the story from a distance. But, that is exactly what so many writers do. They mistakenly believe that the cold reality of fact is more important than the multi-dimensional dynamic of experience. It is much safer to have opinions than to question assumptions. We want facts, and we want a sense of assuredness that we are making wise decisions in our lives, but are we always willing to take that ride with Pipo through the hairpin turns of experience? Are we willing to distill our facts through the directness of experience? Without the parable there can be no sermon.
Our lives our full of the parables upon which we can contribute an enduring legacy to the world. Those legacies are the journal entries, poems, songs, stories, novels, and essays that capture people’s imaginations and fires their passion, or simply stirs the embers of a world that needs pondering. I have no problem with the well-wrought essay that presents an impeccable line of reasoning and logical argument, but if I sense a fallacy, a hypocrisy, or a lack of magnanimity, I quickly create a distance between myself and the writer who is simply out to set me straight. Seek out the writers who know of what they speak, and you will be rewarded with a truth you can cherish and turn in your mind for years to come. To become that writer you need to return to the source of your own wisdom and chip away at the stone of memory until it takes a shape—the infinite and varied shapes of literature and writing—that can be held in our eyes and opened in our hearts, and our minds.
For years I have had an idea for a novel, but I never actually sat down to begin writing it. The idea was too complicated, the characters to diffuse, the length too daunting in the face of a busy lifestyle, but I thought of Pipo getting on the Yankee Cannonball in spite of every rational fear he had of roller coasters. So I began to take an hour or so out of every day and began writing my book. My car caught the clicking chain and took me to the point where gravity took over. I am barely down the first hill, but the ride is exhilarating and real. I see the track laid out before me, and, like Pipo, I’m not sure what every turn and twist will bring, but I do know there is an end to the ride, and that is where I draw my strength. Maybe I will walk away woozy and say “never again.” But at least I will know.
Think of what you “really” want to write.
And begin writing.
I am surprised sometimes
by the suddenness of November:
beauty abruptly shed
to a common nakedness—
of people I’ve lost.
It is left to those of us
dressed in the hard
barky skin of experience
to insist on a decorum
that rises to the greatness
of a true Thanksgiving.
This is not a game,
against a badly scheduled team,
an uneven match on an uneven pitch.
This is Life.
This is Life.
This is Life.
Not politely mumbled phrases,
murmured with a practiced and meticulous earnestness.
Thanksgiving was born a breech-birth,
a screaming appreciation for being alive—
for not being one of the many
who didn’t make it—
who couldn’t moil through
another hardscrabble year
on tubers and scarce fowl.
Thanksgiving is for being you.
There are no thanks without you.
You are the power of hopeful promise;
you are the balky soil turning upon itself;
you are bursting forth in your experience.
You are not the person next to you—
not an image or an expectation.
You are the infinite and eternal you—
blessed, and loved, and consoled
by the utter commonness
and community of our souls.
We cry and we’re held.
We love and we hold.
We are the harvest of God,
to a new Thanksgiving.
Have a great break. Thanks for all of your good work this semester. No homework until you return!
A lingering fear and distrust of apps
Always do what you are afraid to do.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have evolved into what we are because we have somehow learned to balance mistrust and wariness of danger with a counterbalancing willingness to explore and exploit the rewards of equally dangerous undertakings and adventures. The stories of our histories would be tepid and soon forgotten if not faced with struggle and perseverance that somehow revealed a greater truth and wisdom and courage to live in a higher state of existence. If we do not accept and embrace this, then we may as well just relegate ourselves to a more diminished and ignorant self. Mighty high sounding talk, I know, to lead into a discussion of apps on an iPad.
But, it is what it is…
Every folder on my iPad is essentially a toolbox where I keep useful tools. I never let any one toolbox contain more tools that can fit on the cover screen of any folder—usually something like 12 apps, most of which I seldom use, but some that are essential to my daily workflow. It is no different than the toolboxes a I use when teaching shop or managing the various projects I undertake at home.
I have a toolbox for plumbing supplies and tools. I have a toolbox for painting supplies. I have a toolbox for woodcarving. I have a toolbox for working on my car and bus and boat. All of these are kept in my workshop and in my shed along with benches, shelves, vices and hooks and hangers.
Not once has someone said to me: “Fitz, you have too many tools in too many boxes in too many places.” I simply have what I need and what has evolved to serve the purposes and tasks of my everyday life. And still I sometimes have to go to Tom Cummings shop or a friend’s garage or another friend’s shed to “borrow” what I need, but don’t have.
So why the incessant hubbub I hear about too many apps on a student’s iPad? If they are useful to him or her—or me as their teacher—it is a useful app, regardless of how often a specific app is used. My shop students routinely come to a shop filled with all manner of tools—most of which those students are clueless about how to use.
And the funny thing is that it never seems to bother them or their parents or the school because everyone intuitively trusts that what is there is a useful and an ultimately necessary part of a dynamic and well-equipped shop.
And many of them are extremely dangerous tools! Way more dangerous than GarageBand, Book Creator, iTunes U and iMovie. This appophobia is as senseless as it is crippling, and the clarion call to forbid these apps is being led by people who have no clue how to use and exploit these tools for academic benefit.
The usual fallback for declaring an app to be useless is to lament that learning new apps is confusing and distracting and the sign of an out of touch teacher. With that logic we should throw out quadratic equations, the krebb’s cycle and the causes of The Civil War, and the proper use of conjunctive adverbs. We should ban backpacks with more than three textbooks, any loose sheaves of paper and calculators with any kind of trigonometry functions. We shouldn’t give a lecture that is more than five minutes long or occasionally ask kids to just remember the assignment—as in just remember the conversation we had at the end of class.
Imagine the horror of so many when the first pencils with built in erasers tumbled off the assembly line. Mistakes could now be hidden with a simple flick of the wrist. How could teachers even begin to know what students did and did not know? Imagine a school allowing students to use textbooks to supplant the power of a teacher’s oration on any given subject matter?
Education is like a shark: if it does not continue to move forward, it dies. If education does not move in the direction of its prey, it ultimately weakens and dies. If we put myopic restraints on a teacher thing to put new and dynamic power into the hands of his or her students and forge a new and better way of learning, then education dies. No fish can ever be caught without stirring the waters, so we should embrace the messiness of learning as the tailings of a miner’s labor.
Which brings me back to this iPad of mine tapping away in the stillness of a late September night. It is my poets hoe, my pick axe, chisel and plane. It is doing what I need it to do at this given point in time. In a few minutes (I hope) it will be the final chapter in a good book. Tomorrow it may record my songs, film my video, craft my essay, fill my journal, create my quiz, model my discussion, post my assignment, paint my canvas, grade my homework—and when I don’t want it or need it, or feel if is useful, it simply disappears.
Back into my shed, my toolbox, or some dusty shelf…
The iPad is not a tool or a device or a thing. It is an enabler of possibility. Apps are not a panoply of evil undertakings; they are merely shovels and spades that let us dig deeper and faster and cut our corners as clean and square as Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne.
And I do not have a problem with that.
So much of school can—and often is—hard, but what should be easy, should be made easy. Finding, creating, and submitting assignments should be easy. Receiving timely assessments and grade updates should be an expectation of every student and a practice of every teacher. I have spent the last 12 years working and trying to make my curriculum a paperless stream that is simple and effective, but for it to work, you must be willing to swim in that stream. The school is embarking on a noble effort (Using My Fenn and Finalsite) to help facilitate how we assign, grade, and manage our respective classes. For the most part, and if used wisely, it is a pretty good system. For my part, I will post all of your assignments on Finalsite and allow you to see your assignments and view your grades in a fluid and ongoing way throughout the year. It is important that you check your grades regularly to be sure that I have not made any mistakes when entering your grades. It does happen sometimes, and I am more than willing (even eager) to fix what is wrong. We also take the idea of a digital workflow a bit further than is possible with Finalsite, so it is important that you embrace and utilise the following resources.
The Crafted Word: Fitz’s Reading & Writing Website
The 8th Grade pag e and Freshman pageon my website (and the website as a whole) will always give you quick and easy access to the whole spectrum of what we are doing in class. Additionally, it allows me to share my own blog, view and download my resources and rubrics (of which I have many!) and it serves as a central hub to read my essays on writing and reading, to study my punctuation and grammar rules, to learn and practice essential vocabulary, engage in class forums, and access our class writing community. In short, it contains everything I know and have created over the years to help anyone become a better reader and writer. It is also easily accessed anytime by any device connected to the internet. Bookmark the page and you will always be “one click” away from knowing what to do.
Blogging: Creating and Maintaining a Personal Blog
- Required Apps: Weebly (free download from the app store),
- Day One: a private journaling platform (paid app $3.95)
As a long time writer in my own right, I have always kept a journal, which later in life evolved into an online blog where I share my words—songs, poetry, essays, journal entries, videos, podcasts and photo galleries with whomever is interested or willing to read, to watch or to listen. I create blogs using Weebly for each of you to do the same, which we share as a class writing community. It has always been an energising and powerful way for my students to live and act like a true writer—and that is what you will be: a true writer; moreover, we will comment on each other’s work and strive to help each other create a compelling and intellectually rich digital portfolio. Since you may not want to share everything you write, we also use Day One, which is without peer the best and easiest to use journaling app I have ever used. ( I am using it right now to create a draft of this post!)
iTunes U: Accessing, Creating, Submitting & Grading Assignments
- Required App: iTunes U (free download from the app store)
Since we are an iPad school, I feel it is important that we learn to use our iPads as effectively and dynamically as possible. iTunes U allows me to post assignments, documents, videos, and literature that you can upload and complete with relative ease. It also allows me to grade, edit, comment on your work, and return our work to you in an uncluttered and easy to use interface. It also allows for private discussion on individual assignments. Perhaps its greatest feature is that it works with almost every iPad app out there, so frustration levels are kept pretty low.
Pages: Document Creation
- Required App: Pages (free download from the app store)
Pages is a feature rich, easy to use program for creating documents that simply works better on an iPad than any other program I have used on an iPad. Finished documents can be uploaded to iTunes U quickly and easily, and it allows work to be saved as pdf’s, word documents and epubs (which can be saved to your iTunes libraries as iBooks).
Other Required Apps:
- Garageband: we use Garageband to create podcasts and voiceovers for video essays.
- iMovie: we use iMovie to create really cool videos throughout the year.
- Keynote: we use Keynote for creating presentations.
- Adobe Voice: we use Adobe Voice for creating a quick and beautiful visual and audio presentations.
- Book Creator: we use Book Creator to create and share individual portfolios for distinct units of work.
- Notability: we use Notability for notetaking, uploading and annotating selections of literature, revising and peer editing–and many other handy things.
I hope this does not look daunting to you, and it should not be. I will spend time in class this week to get you all up and running. I am surely not reinventing the wheel because I have tried it and it works, and I am confident that it will help us all have a rewarding and productive year in 8th grade English. In practice, it will help us create and sustain a workflow that will simply become an organic part of your life and a practice. As always, contact me if you have a question or problem that needs fixing.
I was eighteen and designing a production line for making stepladders at Fitchburgh State College—the only college I could afford, and probably the only place that would have me. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this ain’t no life for me.’ I barely had a working idea of what life meant, but I was pretty sure it meant I didn’t have to do something without any meaning or purpose—and I certainly didn’t want to spend my life designing a better stepladder.’
But, what did I want to do? Did I have the courage to even make a change in my life? If I had read The Odyssey, I might have known what to do; I might have known that I was on a heroic journey and that my call to adventure was the churning confusion in my gut, and I might have known to look for a helper and an amulet to get me over the threshold—that no quest is real until you realize that you cannot go it alone.
My helper was my English professor. I can’t even recall her real name, but she was old and sweet, and so we called her Aunt Bee—and she was sweet enough to ask me to stay after class to meet with her one day early in the fall. (Although I was petrified she was going to have me expelled for charging five dollars to any kid in my dorm to write their English papers for them.)
Instead, she held a paper in her hand that I had written, and a paper in which I actually cared about what I wrote. The day before she had told us to take a walk through the city and then write about the walk. Most of my classmates stayed in the dorm, laughed about how naive Aunt Bee was, and wrote some insipid scrawls that they thought would qualify as an essay—or they tried to get me to write an essay for less than five dollars.
But I took the walk. I wandered through the poorest streets in Fitchburgh; I sat on front steps with little kids and old men; I sat with drunks and dreamers, and I wondered. I wondered if my walk was actually real, or if I was even real, and then wrote some story about a kid who couldn’t tell if he was awake or dreaming or even which state of mind he wanted to live in. Aunt Bee shook this paper in my face and said bluntly, “You shouldn’t be an industrial arts major. This [shaking the paper even closer to my face] is your gift!”
Never once had anyone told me I had a gift of any sort, except perhaps for whittling birds out of scraps of soft pine. I don’t think Aunt Bee knew how ready I was for a change—any change. I seemed to take her off guard when I responded, “Okay. So what do I do?”
“Leave this place,” she answered.
So I left.
Never had a decision been so easy and so hard at the same time. It was easy because I knew in my heart that Aunt Bee was right, but it was hard because my parents thought I was throwing my life away—and I was: I threw my old life away and charted a new course into a world of words and literature—a world that I really knew nothing about.
That decision in 1976 is the reason I am writing this to you today. It has been the proverbial long and winding road, but I have never been let down by a book or hobbled by anything I wrote, even though much of what I’ve written is pretty dumb and forgettable.
There was very little academia in my new journey. I learned to write by writing. I learned to write better by listening to what people thought and felt about my writing. I joined some writing workshops where each week each person would bring in some poem or story to share with a circle of other would be writers. I learned what worked in my writing and what didn’t work—at least to the small universe of my writer’s circle. I never thought I was a good writer, and so I was never really bothered by what people said. I just thought, ‘Cool. I guess I should change this….’
Even after a few workshops, I still never thought I was a writer, until I one day a friend introduced me to his friend by saying, “This is Fitz. He’s a writer.” I protested that I was not a writer, and my friend just said, “Then what the hell else are you?”
“I don’t know. An apple picker, I guess,” for at the time I was picking apples with a crew of Jamaicans in a New Hampshire orchard.
“At any rate, Fitz is a better writer than he is an apple picker. That much I’m sure,” my friend said, sealing the deal and sealing my fate—a fate which, by and large, has been good to me.
But be careful, for you, too, might become a writer; and once you become a writer, you can’t turn back; you can only turn away. Such is the power and allure of writing. If schools really knew what happens when a kid becomes a writer, they would ban the teaching of writing. It’s like giving a ten year old the keys to a bad-ass car; it’s like pointing across a canyon and screaming, “Jump!” It’s like opening the window and pointing in every direction and saying, “This is all you need to know and everything you’ll ever try to know.”
Writing is unfettered and audacious freedom.
Don’t do it.
This is perhaps the biggest thunderstorm that I haven’t been in. The lightning is flashing and bolting to the ground, and the thunder is booming in every direction—though it is all five miles away. Here there is no wind or rain. The sky is bright directly overhead, but the tall pines on the far side of the field are backdropped in roiled, dark clouds.
Strange. There is a shift in the clouds. They are coming towards us now from the northeast….
I had to run from under the comfortable shelter under the awning of our RV and take some “shelter from the storm” as a huge gust of wind and pelting rain came at us from this strange direction. Just as suddenly, it shifted again and renewed its course to the southwest leaving me perplexed and dampened.
Writers often do the same thing with their writing. They build up a storm of unimagined intensity and create a looming confrontation between the opposing forces whom have been long at battle in their story line. Readers sense the impending conflict that will finally resolve the richly thickened plot; the wind whips, lightning flashes, thunder crashes and…
The storm takes a new direction—blows all hell and fury in another direction—and then returns to its insidious and relentless march to the sea (in New England, all thunderstorms march to the sea!) but the reader is no longer in the path of the storm; they are stranded like a desperate mariner on a now lonely shore watching the clouds boil away over the horizon. The writer, still caught up in his or her storm, assumes the reader is still with them anticipating the coming climax, but they are not. They’re more like me; they are left wondering why the storm took that irrational jog to the southeast, because that is the rational response to mystery—to ask why. There is no reason—aside from perhaps a schoolmasters admonitions—at require us to wade through the muck of tortured writing.
Most of us are rational and surprisingly intuitive, and a good writer needs to recognize and respect that reality. Good readers are like oft jilted lovers wary of another disappointing affair. They know when to put a book aside and find another writer, one who won’t let them down. They love the reward of a well-written story, an inspiring essay, or a compelling narrative; they love writers who consistently provide that reward, and they return to those writers over and again with their time, attention, and money.
A good writer is not in love with his or her own writing. They are in love with the process of writing well, regardless and because of their chosen genre! I will read and re-read Patrick O’Brien’s endless repertoire of naval sea novels, not because O’Brien’s novels are masterpieces of literature, but because he consistently provides a rewarding reading experience for “me” as someone who loves stories of naval battles! O’Brien found his niche, and he found his audience. It is an audience that he respected and worked tirelessly to please before passing away (sadly for his devoted audience eager for more novels) at a ripe old age. Though O’Brien will never be placed among the pantheon of “great” writers, what he aspired to do, he did well, and certainly well enough for me.
Thoreau once said, “Measure a man, not by what he is, but by what he aspires to be.” My readers are, by and large, writers who aspire to be better writers. In the greater scheme of things, I can only give you bits and pieces out of my own insights, experiences, and aspirations. I am only the proverbial finger pointing at the moon.
You will only reach the moon through your own labors.